Sundance Review: Being Elmo Charms The Entire Festival
There's pretty much no easier sell than a documentary about the Sesame Street, unless it's a documentary about the cutest Muppet there is, Elmo. Oh, and did you know Elmo is voice by a middle-aged black man who started making puppets as a child growing up in working-class Baltimore, and now wants nothing more than to make children happy and have a good relationship with his teenage daughter?
The audience started "awwing" from the first shot of Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, given that the first shot was a close-up on Elmo against a cheery yellow background. And though the movie get a little deeper and less cutesy than that, documenting puppeteer Kevin Clash's rise from local Baltimore celebrity to operating a puppet crammed between the shoulders of Jim Henson and Frank Oz. The movie accepts as fact that Sesame Street and the Muppets are the best thing to happen to childhood in the last 40 years, but the rapturous audience response at tonight's screening kind of goes to prove the point. And Clash himself is portrayed as some kind of patron saint of childhood, an awkward teenager blossoming into a puppeteering genius, traveling the world only to make kids happy and even help out other budding puppeteers who visit the Sesame Street workshop.
But you know, what more do you want from a movie about being Elmo, achieving your dreams and influencing the lives of millions of children? The movie swoops past the genuinely fascinating history of children's television, as Clash went to work for Captain Kangaroo and another short-lived series before arriving on Sesame Street, and goes into enough to detail to give a really good sense of what makes a good puppeteer. It's not just moving your hand and coming up with a funny voice, but having a sense of the puppet's personality, understanding the tiny details that give the cloth life, and coming up with the single attribute that will make your puppet stand out. Elmo started out on Sesame Street as a deep-voiced caveman type, and only when Clash imagined him as a hug-loving child did he truly take off.
Anyone who grew up on Sesame Street and the Muppets-- and if you're younger than 50, you almost definitely did-- will grin involuntarily through Being Elmo, and there's so much joy crammed into the film that there's no time to notice the lack of depth. I won't be shocked if Being Elmo takes home the Audience Award at Sundance, and goes from there to either a successful theatrical run or television-- anywhere that parents and nostalgic adults alike can get as wrapped up in it as the audience here did. Yes, Elmo himself probably won't come out to greet the children in the crowd after every screening, but the movie is charming enough that you might feel like he did anyway.
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